Erin Brockovich
Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Coyote, Conchata Ferrell, and Cherry Jones
Director:

Steven Soderbergh

Writing credits: Susannah Grant
Distributor: New Line Cinema * 130 minutes
Rated: R forlanguage
  (USA 2000)

The commonly held wisdom among film pundits is that Julia Roberts -- the biggest female movie star in the world at the moment -- just can't do serious work. Certainly, she's proven time and time again that she is the undisputed Queen of the Romantic Comedy; her successes in the genre range from PRETTY WOMAN and MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING to last year's NOTTING HILL and RUNAWAY BRIDE. In anything else, however, her track record is much spottier. She's had hits and misses as an action star (CONSPIRACY THEORY, THE PELICAN BRIEF), an arthouse attraction (READY TO WEAR), and as a dramatic actress (MARY REILLY, MICHAEL COLLINS). The public loves Julia, beyond doubt...but only when she shakes that beautiful mane of red hair, smiles, and falls for the leading man.

So what is the World's Biggest Female Star to do? If you're Julia Roberts, you start to subvert the formula that made you famous in the first place. Her romantic comedies, of late, haven't had traditional girl-loves-boy tales. MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING showcases her as a scheming man-stealer, who eventually loses the man (!) and goes home with her gay friend. NOTTING HILL had Julia playing, of all things, the World's Biggest Film Star, and she clearly relished the sly commentary on her own experience.

Now Julia has subverted her formula even further, thanks to director Steven Soderbergh and ERIN BROCKOVICH, her latest film that easily ranks as her best dramatic work ever. But if it's not truly a drama, it's not really a romantic comedy either -- sure, she shakes her hair, smiles and cracks wise, but she's also out to beat Big Business and win one for the little people.

Based on a true story, ERIN BROCKOVICH is a satisfying work that mines its Love Canal-like environmental themes for unexpectedly original gold. A twice-divorced mother of three, Erin works for Ed Masry (Albert Finney), a successful small town lawyer whose guilty, long-buried good nature has made him hire this smalltown spitfire (who, incidentally, has no law experience or even college education). Assigned a dead-end pro bono case to catalog, Erin discovers that Pacific Gas and Electric may be trying to cover up an environmental disaster that may be the cause for the widespread illnesses of nearby residents. Using common sense, unlawyerly compassion, and the inconsistent support of her biker boyfriend, George (Aaron Eckhart), she convinces the residents to band together in an enormous lawsuit against PG&E.

What could have been material for a TV movie of the week is transformed in the hands of director Steven Soderbergh (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE), a gifted filmmaker who has firm control of his leading lady. Roberts, under Soderbergh's direction, trades very little on her natural charm, allowing Erin to have wild mood swings that often make her irresponsible and unlikeable. She uses off-color language with abandon, references her sexual ability on half a dozen occasions, and dresses in tight, ill-fitting clothing that seems to telegraph "tramp". Watching ERIN BROCKOVICH is a different kind of Julia Film, because it's the first one that isn't a Julia Film at all -- Erin transcends the star power of the actress playing her, and the entire affair is the better for it.

Soderbergh has also surrounded Roberts with a superior ensemble, including Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Cherry Jones and Conchata Ferrell. The talent bar has been placed very high, and it pushes Roberts to new levels she may not have reached otherwise. Finney is a dream as the goodhearted grump Masry, an unlikely but perfect comic partner and foil. Aaron Eckhart, as George, gives needed weight and respect to the film's relationship subplot; his darkening cloud of discontent is one of the film's most eloquent transformations. Finally, the gifted character actor Conchata Ferrell takes a throwaway part and makes it memorable, a barb for Brockovich who can give as good as she gets.

Even with all of its merits, however, ERIN BROCKOVICH isn't a masterwork. Like Soderbergh's other recent films (THE LIMEY and OUT OF SIGHT), the director's predilection for vibrant color and flashy camerawork (and his preference for mood over narrative) hinders the storytelling. The directionless moments in the middle of the film, including pointless scenes with the talented Cherry Jones, are nearly ruinous; thankfully, the film gets back on the narrative track toward the end.

By any measure, though, ERIN BROCKOVICH has to be seen as the beginning of a new chapter in Julia Roberts' career. With good word of mouth, it has the potential to be one of her biggest financial successes. But it is the film's artistic successes which are the real news. Stranger things have happened, but someday, the pundits may call Julia Roberts the Queen of the Comic Drama.

 

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2000 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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